The 7 Dispensations of Normative Dispensationalism

Introduction

Depending on one’s dispensational theology, as few as three dispensations can be argued over in scripture. In the passage that most clearly gives the basis for Dispensationalism, Ephesians 1-3, there are at least three spoken of. However, most dispensationalists will hold to a seven-dispensation view. These are the seven that will be discussed in this paper: Innocence, Conscience, Human Government, Patriarchal Rule, Law, Grace, and Millennium. Each dispensation, or economy of government between God and man, follows loosely the same pattern. A test or requirement is given from God to man, man fails to meet the standard set by God, God issues a judgment on man and ushers in a new dispensation. The main source to be used in this paper is Charles Ryrie’s Dispensationalism: Revised and Expanded, because it is, by far, the seminal work when discussing dispensationalism and provides ample explanation of the normative view on the dispensations, so not much else is needed. Other sources will be used to inform generally, but will not be directly quoted or supply unique ideas to their work that require citation. [1]

Innocence

Innocence. This, the first dispensation in any legitimate scheme, is the economy in which God gave only one rule and had the closest relationship with humans that He has ever had or will have until the new heavens and new earth. The one rule given was not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Good and evil. The judgment for failure to obey this rule is the curse found in Genesis 3. The time period covered by this dispensation is from creation to the fall. This dispensation can be found in greater detail in Genesis 1:3-3:6.[2]

It is interesting to note that this dispensation does not appear in progressive dispensationalism’s scheme. It seems obvious, even to those who would not call themselves dispensationalists, that a huge change occurred at the fall of man and a completely different method of interaction between humans and God began, which is a clear indication of a change in dispensation. This calls into question the reliability of Progressive Dispensationalism, but that’s another paper for another time. [3][4]

Conscience

After the fall of man in Genesis 3, a new economy was ushered in that lasted almost two thousand years according to young-earthers, and even longer according to old-earthers. This period of conscience is the longest dispensation that is recorded in its entirety in the bible, but has very little text devoted to it, and it could be argued that its judgment is the greatest. There is very little known about the dispensation of conscience, as only three chapters in the bible describe it, and most of those chapters are filled with genealogies. All that is clear is that the judgment was great and it seems to be that the rules were very simple.

The judgment was the Noahic flood and it says in Genesis 6 that it was brought about because God saw that, “every intent of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually.” It is after this revelation that the Lord determines to blot out man from the face of the earth, which logically means that if there were even a few thoughts of man’s heart that were on good instead of evil, the judgment would not have come. This leads to the assumption that the rule during this period was to do good and not evil. Of course, like every dispensation, humans do not follow this rule. [5]

It could be argued that sacrifices were necessary and that some did make pleasing sacrifices to God (Able, Enoch, Noah, etc.) but there is obviously great deterioration of this system over the near 2,000 years of life in this period and God does not cite this as a reason for his judgment, he only cites the evil of man. [6]

Human Government

This dispensation began just after the flood with the Noahic Covenant, when Noah is given the authority to enforce moral laws, particularly in the case of murder. God says to Noah, “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed.” Clearly God is giving men the right to govern one another based on the conscience and morality established within them as men created in the image of God. [7]

This dispensation lasts only a little while and the charge to be fruitful and multiply and live morally doesn’t hold up very long as Noah gets drunk and unruly and his son Ham disrespects him during this state. Nevertheless, the dispensation of civil government continues from the flood until the dispersion of people at the tower of Babel, and the choosing of Abram just after it. [8]

Patriarchal Rule

The change in government during the dispensation of Patriarchal rule marked a narrowing of God’s vision for humanity. Until this time, God had dealt with humanity as a whole, but during this dispensation, God chooses a single man and his descendants to work through, instead of giving instructions to everyone.[9]

The responsibility during the patriarchal dispensation was to believe and serve God. This is clearly seen in instances like the near sacrifice of Isaac, and the covenant and promise of land seed and blessing to Abram. The time period covered in this dispensation is from the choosing of Abram, or the tower of Babel debacle, all the way to the giving of the law to Moses. [10]

The question of what the test, failure and judgment was intended for this dispensation is confusing and debatable. It is obviously clear that the giving of the law marked the start of a new dispensation, and even Paul mentions this in Galatians 3, but unlike past dispensations there was no clear time of “judgment” just before the giving of the law. If anything, the judgment of this dispensation actually came after the giving of the law with the forty years of wandering, which would place the judgment for the dispensation of patriarchal rule during the dispensation of Law. This is confusing at best and downright wrong at worst. All in all, however, it can clearly be stated that there were judgments during this dispensation – Egyptian bondage, for one – and there were tests as stated early. This dispensation simply does not follow as much of a cookie cutter format as others do.

Law

The dispensation of the law is the most detailed dispensation in terms of description. It comprises nearly eighty percent of biblical text. The Law was given to the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai and it was the test for this dispensation. They were supposed to follow the law. This dispensation lasted through the time of conquest with Joshua, the period of the Judges, the period of the Kings and Prophets, the period of Exile and the Inter-testamental period, all the way up to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. [11]

Much like the previous dispensation, many judgments can be seen, but there was not a huge final judgment that marked a change in dispensation as with Noah and the dispensation of Conscience. Instead, the most major judgment would be the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, which happened nearly five hundred years before the economy of the Lord changed. This does not mean that another dispensation occurred in-between this time; it merely means that the dispensation is unique in its construction, and that’s okay.[12]

Grace

The dispensation of Grace is the one we are currently living in. The requirement from God in this age is to place their trust in Jesus Christ as the savior of the world from their sins. The eventual failure to do this will bring about a great and terrible judgment. Jesus calls it, “The Great Tribulation.” This judgment will be wonderful but terrible and mighty. It will pour out God’s wrath on humanity, but grace and mercy will be shown through it also. For more information on the dispensation of Grace, it is highly advised that one read his New Testament and see what writers like Paul and peter have to say on the subject as they are the principle tools God used to reveal this current dispensation. [13]

Millennium

The final dispensation on the normative scheme is that of the Millennium. After The Great Tribulation and the resulting second advent of Christ, the Millennium will be established. During this dispensation of one thousand years, the job of humanity will be to follow the commands of the king, Jesus Christ himself. Many will fail to do this as in all other dispensations and the final judgment will be held. The Great White Throne Judgment, which is a judgment not only for failure in this current dispensation, but also for all people in every dispensation. This punishment will be final and eternal and great glory and justice will be done through it.[14]

Conclusion

These are the seven dispensations in the normative scheme. Each one loosely follows the pattern of a command given by God or a test for humanity to responsibly follow, the failure of humanity as a whole to do so, and a resulting judgment or punishment, followed by a restoration by God and a new command or responsibility. In each of these dispensations many attributes of Go can be seen, from his grace and love and mercy, to his wrath and justice and power and majesty. In all, these dispensations reveal the character of God and His multifaceted interactions with humanity throughout history.

Bibliography

Blaising, Craig A., ed., and Darrel L. Bock, ed. Dispensationalism, Israel and the church: The Search for Definition. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992.

Poythress. Vern S. Understanding Dispensationalists. 2nd ed. New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 1994.

Ryrie, Charles. Dispensationalism: Revised and Expanded. 3rd ed. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007.

Saucy, Robert. The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993.

[1] Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism: Revised and Expanded, 2nd ed. (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2007), 46.

[2] Ibid, 51.

[3] Ibid, 52.

[4] Robert Saucy, The Case for Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1993).

[5] Ryrie, 52.

[6] Ibid, 53.

[7] Ibid, 53.

[8] Ibid, 53.

[9] Ibid, 54.

[10] Ibid, 55.

[11] Ibid, 55.

[12] Ibid, 55.

[13] Ibid, 56.

[14] Ibid, 56.

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